How to write good dialog for text adventures

How would one write character dialog in a text adventure? I was brainstorming a possible new project but I’m having trouble imagining how dialog would work. I’d imagine it would be difficult to have a back and forth without given dialog options

any tips?
Any recommendations for good dialog heavy if games just to see it in action?

Edit: Dialog as in characters talking, not dialog the framework lol


Thaumistry by Bob Bates

It is written in TADS 3 which has a very rich library. (Adv3).


That’s a good point, but fortunately it’s absolutely possible to write a parser game with a conversation system where you let the player choose from a menu of dialogue options.

The technical details depend on the authoring system which you would use, but it’s possible in all of the popular ones, as far as I know.

You can have a “TALK TO” command or similar, which will drop the players into a choice-based conversation, where different options (selected by typing a number, for example) lead to different branches of dialogue and so on, just like in other video games.

It can be seen as a slight drawback that the players are taken out of the free parser input mode into the menu-mode, where they might feel that the task has turned into methodically going through all the options like a lawnmower.
The advantages, of course, are that you can implement the exact flow and back-and-forth of the dialogue, and that the players will never be at a loss how to proceed.

Another option would be to have a traditional “ASK/TELL” system which works with topic keywords, but to combine that with topic suggestions to give the conversation a certain flow:

"Where were you at 6 o'clock?"

Jim starts to sweat. "Uh, I was in the library, spending some time with Goethe. Alice was there, too."

(You could: ask him about Goethe, ask him about Alice, tell him about Alice's statement)

Further reading:

@emshort and @mathbrush have written these articles which go into more detail:

Edited to add: Choosing a Conversation System from the TADS3 Technical Manual (but not TADS specific)


Emily Short has given a lot of thought to the modeling of conversation, so you should definitely check out her games.

Eric Eve’s games usually also have smoothly-implemented dialogue mechanics.

Some suggestions:

More recommendations

These lists might be helpful:

One-room conversation games

Games tagged with “conversation”, sorted by highest rated first


As a player I prefer the “talk to” method for the important stuff with additional topics covered by “ask about” for flavor. I think “guess the topic” is even worse than “guess the verb” because you’re more likely to assume that the topic wasn’t implemented, so I think it’s good to have it covered with a list. But this is coming from someone that really likes CYOAs and isn’t taken out the experience by the appearance of a menu. A parser purist may feel differently.


I should probably also mention that I play most games on my phone, and the interpreter doesn’t keep previous commands, so typing “ask Bob about” a zillion times suuucks. Thankfully TADS has an “a” shortcut built in where you type “a apple” and it’s the same as typing “ask Bob about apple”, assuming you interacted with Bob last. Inform doesn’t come with this feature, but it’d sure be nice if people would implement this for players using third world input methods like me and my touch screen. *hint hint*


Thank you @StJohnLimbo for the great list of games and resources.

I second Galatea. It’s a must-play/read for modelling conversations.
There has been great evolution in dialogue since, but one still stands in awe at the finetuned machinery behind this Emily Short game.

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I’m exactly the same. I hardly play any games that use ASK/TELL, unless it’s been bolstered or augmented with a system to show topics in some way, because basically… I can’t stand it. The effect was multiplied when I started developing RSI. I dislike doing typing that feels truly wasted, and ASK/TELL is the thing that’s guaranteed to make me feel I’m doing it.

I haven’t played all the listed games above but I’m a bit suspicious, if they’re tagged conversation, they may all be ASK/TELL, and so potentially leading one away from the green grass on the other side of the fence.

So I think other game systems (not parser) are the place to go for certain kinds of conversation mechanics.

What I personally like in parser is a combination of dialogue choices and for the game’s state (that you, the player, put it in) to determine the conversation topics or flow automatically. This is handy because it fits with the kind of games I make, where you’re in character. The character knows what the character knows and the program knows what the character knows.

In Six, I didn’t even have options, partly because it wasn’t a focus of the game and partly because all the characters are impulsive six-year-olds. I still got praise for the conversation system (which is just TALK or TALK TO) partly because it wasn’t touted as a focus of the game and partly because it was sensitive to the game’s state and what the player’s been doing.

I’m not worried about flow-breaking by a menu for dialogue in parser game at all. Dialogue itself is its own flow within a flow of the words. Okay, not all dialogue can be electric, depending on the nature of the conversation. But dialogue with the spark of what’s flowing between people, in the flow of the words, can be super hooky.


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I agree.

I was suggested Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter the other day and that also has a menu driven conversation system, and it uses it how it should: it branches. This is something that “ask about” struggles with, IMO. Or maybe it’s something I struggle with in “ask about”. Either way, I dislike having to notice topics that were mentioned one time in a sea of text. I prefer the game tracks it for me.

I’m also suspicious of the vagueness of asking about a topic, which is why I like conversation menus.

Outside House
There's a small blue house here.

Tom's wife heads into the house. 

Tom is sitting on the bench with his daughter.

>ask Tom about his wife
"How long has your wife been cheating on you, Tom?" 

Randomly picking a question about a topic can be dangerous! :sweat_smile: But I guess that’s what undo is for.

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I actually like the vagueness and lack of direction in ASK/TELL, provided the author has put in the effort. I remember a conversation in Worlds Apart between the protagonist and her uncle(?) that spread out for pages. I could ask about almost anything in the whole game.

In games where conversations are puzzles or provide necessary clues on how to solve a puzzle, I agree that more guidance (keywords/menus) is needed.